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Taking Center Stage

Prosecutor James Comey moves to the forefront in Wall St. cases

September 15, 2003|Walter Hamilton | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — When James Comey was a young prosecutor, one of his toughest cases was proving that a crime didn't happen.

Two Manhattan furriers had claimed their third-floor warehouse was cleaned out in a brazen daytime robbery, and Comey had to show they concocted the story to bilk their insurer. He borrowed thousands of furs from other Manhattan dealers, removed the courtroom's spectator benches overnight and arrayed a vast inventory of furs around the court.

"The front line of the New York Giants with that stuff on their shoulders could not walk out the front door," Comey told amused jurors, who convicted the men.

Comey, now the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, will need to draw on that resourcefulness as he prepares to take center stage in the government's two-year crackdown on Wall Street and corporate America.

In two weeks, prosecutors from Comey's office will go to trial against Frank Quattrone, the onetime Silicon Valley investment banking star who is the only prominent securities industry figure to face criminal charges as a result of Wall Street's recent scandals. Comey's office will square off against homemaking entrepreneur Martha Stewart in January and Scott D. Sullivan, former finance chief at WorldCom Inc., in February.

They are some of the biggest cases of Comey's career. The case against Stewart, in particular, has generated intense media scrutiny.

"His success or failure in her case will not be forgotten," said John Coffee, a Columbia University law professor. "His name will be associated with hers, for better or worse."

More important, these cases mark a concluding phase of the government's assault against corporate crime -- and their outcome could determine whether its campaign is judged a success.

"One of the myths we're battling is that corporate criminals get a slap on the wrist," Comey said in an interview in his lower Manhattan office, "and that is wildly off the mark, given the sentences we hand out here."

The initial phases of the crackdown have resulted in civil fines against stock analysts and their companies. Also, some mid-level executives at WorldCom have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. But only one chief executive, Samuel D. Waksal of ImClone Systems Inc., has gone to prison.

Comey hopes to make examples of others.

The 42-year-old is a longtime prosecutor who wins high marks for his legal acumen and tenacity, as well as for a sense of humor that helps the young lawyers who work with him stay loose.

"I tell them, 'I don't want you to be nervous just because I'm going to be selling pencils for a living if you lose these cases,' " Comey joked.

He acknowledged, though, that "the public will, in a sense, judge the whole effort by their outcome."

Victories in these cases could give Comey a career boost. Sources say he is on a short list of candidates to become deputy U.S. attorney general, succeeding Larry Thompson, who resigned last month.

In the effort to root out corruption on Wall Street and in corporate suites across America, Comey's biggest success came in June when Waksal, an erstwhile high-society pal of Stewart's, was sentenced to seven years in prison for securities fraud. Stewart was charged in connection with the sale of ImClone shares.

Comey has had some setbacks.

When Oklahoma's attorney general filed fraud charges last month against Bernard J. Ebbers, WorldCom's ousted CEO, the move was seen as a slap at Comey's office. In addition to indicting Sullivan, Comey's team had secured guilty pleas from four mid-level WorldCom executives and was pursuing Ebbers aggressively. Comey responded by pointedly indicating that Oklahoma's action could impede the federal government's case.

Some critics have complained that the case against Stewart has been brought solely because of her fame and wouldn't have been lodged against a lesser figure.

Comey was born in the New York suburb of Yonkers and was raised in a middle-class family in New Jersey. He attended public schools before graduating from the College of William and Mary in Virginia and the University of Chicago's law school.

Comey, who is married with five children, worked in the U.S. attorney's office for the Southern District of New York from 1987 to 1993, where he eventually became deputy chief of the criminal division.

In one of his biggest cases, he co-prosecuted organized crime chieftains John and Joseph Gambino, who pleaded guilty to murder and drug trafficking.

After a stint with the U.S. attorney's office in Virginia, Comey assumed his current post in January 2002.

Comey's other focus in New York is terrorism. His office is deeply involved in the prosecution of alleged Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and has other cases going.

An imposing 6 feet, 8 inches tall, Comey comes across as unpretentious, and friends and former colleagues describe him as principled.

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